Free Baba Jan movement has gained momentum within a week.
In January 2010, global climate change manifested itself in Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) in the form of a massive landslide that blocked the Hunza River in Gojal valley and created the Attabad Lake. As village after village was submerged, more than a thousand residents of the valley were displaced and over 25,000 people were cut off from the rest of the country as the waters swallowed up the Karakoram Highway. The plight of the Gojalis was ignored.
Baba Jan, an activist of Progressive Youth Front (PYF), toured the country lobbying for the government to drain the lake and create transport facilities for the affected. The government acted too late and the lake is now a permanent feature of the area.
On August 11, 2011, around 200 people protested for the rights of the affected families to receive compensation as the Chief Minister of GB was visiting Aliabad. The police, instructed to remove the protesters by any means, opened fire on the crowd. Their first victim was Sher Afzal Baig, a 22 year-old student. Then, when Baig’s father tried to retrieve the body of his son, he too was shot. Both died. The valley erupted in indignation and a police station was burnt down by the protesters.
Baba Jan organised numerous protests to demand an investigation and firm action against the police officers responsible for the killing.
The protesters waited for the government to act. It acted a week later. Arrest warrants were issued for numerous protesters including Baba Jan. While most of those arrested were later released on bail, Baba Jan and four other activists, Iftikhar Hussain, Amir Ali, Rashid Minhas and Ameer Khan, known as the Hunza Five, remained behind bars. Twice they have been picked up from jail and tortured. Baba Jan was beaten with sticks, had his feet crushed under boots, two fingers broken and was denied medical treatment, while Iftikhar Hussain had molten wax dropped on his genitals. The purpose was to extract confessions from the detainees, since the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) admits confessions as evidence.
During an interrogation, the activists were also asked to stop struggling for the rights of the oppressed and join any one of the mainstream parties, the PPP, the PML-N or the MQM!
Meanwhile, a judicial inquiry into the Aliabad Tragedy was conducted. Journalists who have seen it claim it lays the blame on the police force and local bureaucracy for the incident. The findings of the inquiry have, however, been suppressed.
The campaign against this series of injustices took on first a national and then an international dimension. Talks, seminars, protests and a hunger-strike camp were organised across the country and then, as news spread via social media networks to sympathisers abroad, protests were held in Tokyo, Colombo, Jakarta, Melbourne, Frankfurt, Paris and Manila. Human rights organisations also started to take up the issue and the HRCP issued a strong statement of concern while the Pakistani Parliamentary Standing Committee on Human Rights demanded explanations from the GB authorities.
On June 26, 2012, the Gilgit-Baltistan Supreme Appellate Court was about to accept the bail appeal of Baba Jan, when new charges were filed against him under the ATA. These charges relate to the incident of rioting in Gilgit Jail that happened on April 26, 2012, i.e., two months prior to the filing of these fresh charges!
On July 2, 2012, their legal defence team managed to secure the release on bail of two of the Hunza Five, Amir Ali and Rashid Minhas. On July 23 and on July 29, massive public meetings were held in Nasirabad (Hunza valley) where participants resolved to step up their campaign for justice within GB.
The vested interests of the ruling clique of GB and those of the federal government have succeeded in making a mockery of justice and due process, so that people of conscience who support the oppressed are persecuted as terrorists while policemen who kill unarmed protestors receive official protection and promotions. In this whole process, the draconian ATA has empowered the corrupt elite to deny the detainees their basic rights simply on the strength of unsubstantiated accusations of terrorism.
Rights activists across the country question the very basis of the ATA that assumes the guilt of the accused — in stark contrast to established norms of due process and the basic rights of a citizen. In this, they find themselves in a situation similar to that of the six members of the Labour Qaumi Movement, sentenced to 99 years each by an Anti-Terrorism Court in Faisalabad, for organising a strike in June 2010.
Under the GB Empowerment & Self-Governance Order 2009, judges are appointed to local courts on a three-year contract, with extensions dependent on performance. Given the interminable series of hearing postponements and the impunity with which state agents have repeatedly tortured the PYF activists, the parameters for their “performance appraisals” are open to some scathing criticism.
The powerful intelligence agencies who have been supporting sectarian elements and various defunct jihadi outfits want to eliminate Baba Jan because he is the only leader in the region who has persistently tried to bring the people of various communities living in GB to jointly struggle for their social and political rights. Baba Jan is a major hurdle in the way of these agencies who want to keep the population of GB divided on sectarian lines in order to secure the unaccountable power they need to pursue their regional geo-political agenda.
Local members of the PPP also consider Baba Jan and the PYF to be a potent threat to their new-found authority, as he has become a folk hero, especially among the youth of the entire region.
Local members of all the mainstream parties have approached Baba Jan with offers of pardon and high privilege, if only he apologized to the authorities for his stubborn resistance — and joined their party.
The tenacious struggle of these young activists has de-legitimised the conspirators in the eyes of the people of the region, who are now shrugging off their fear and preparing to struggle against the oppressive forces that seek to enslave them.